Running With Amelia: Guiding a Blind Runner Through the NYC Marathon

The stadium scene.
Nov. 4 2013 6:05 PM

Running for Amelia

Guiding a blind runner all 26.2 miles of the New York City Marathon.

Jonathan Stenger and Amelia Dickerson nearing the finish line of the New York City Marathon.
Jonathan Stenger and Amelia Dickerson nearing the finish line of the NYC Marathon.

Photo courtesy of Becky Popiel/An Unseen Run

Running is essentially a solitary act. We may train with others, run every day next to the same group of people, and feel more at home with runners than anybody else, but there’s no one there at mile 20 of a marathon unless you count the voice in your head. That was my experience until yesterday’s New York City Marathon, anyway. I ran all 26.2 miles from Staten Island to Central Park with another racer—often attached to her by a tether. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

In late September, my friend Michael Oliva emailed from Colorado to ask if I would be interested in being a guide for a blind runner in the marathon. She would be flying in a few days before the marathon and we would meet for the first time on Friday, but Mike assured me I would pick it up quickly. I wasn’t so sure, but I agreed to participate, flattered by the offer and intrigued by the challenge.

Amelia Dickerson lost her vision as a teenager and runs with the Colorado chapter of Achilles International, an organization devoted to enabling people with disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics. In August, she set the national blind 5,000 meter record. I was nervous about committing to something that was so unknown to me. But I set about trying to figure out what it would be like and what I needed to know. I read about Amelia’s running and the tether she used with her guide. I asked Jamie Kyei-Frimpong, one of my steady running partners and good friends, to join us, and I read about the specific challenges of guiding in the NYC Marathon.

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Perhaps most importantly, I got more serious about my training. This would be Amelia’s first marathon, but she had set an ambitious goal time of 3:30. This is about 30 minutes slower than my typical goal, but I had run two very bad marathons in the last year and had let that disappointment sideline my training. When Mike contacted me at the end of September, there were only five weeks until race day. I hadn’t been marathon training on my own, but I had been coaching a marathon-training program so my fitness wasn’t terrible. Still, I focused on getting in some quality workouts and increased my weekly mileage to ensure I could handle it.

We met at the marathon expo on Friday afternoon, collected our bibs, and received some basic instructions for Sunday morning. Achilles Colorado traveled with quite an entourage, including filmmaker Becky Popiel, who was there capturing footage for a documentary on Amelia. Michael, Amelia, and I ran Friday evening, and I observed Mike guiding Amelia through the busy midtown streets and Central Park. On Saturday, I ran four miles with Amelia and we talked about race strategy, fueling, and the unique challenges of the NYC Marathon. Amelia was excited and confident. Mike had described her as tough and strong. She was also incredibly open and friendly and expressed an infectious confidence in my guidance and the group assembled to support her run.

We met the Athletes with Disabilities buses in midtown at 5 a.m. Sunday. We drove over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and were allowed to drop off within a few blocks of the athletes’ village. It was a cold morning with a strong breeze off the water, but they took good care of us with a tent, warm things to drink, and hats. The excitement at the start of the marathon is intense; it is no less intense for athletes with disabilities, but it is different. Amelia did what all athletes do. She focused, prepared methodically, and centered herself. The difference is that we did all that with her. It wasn’t in isolation that she mapped out the race, planned for gel, water, and Gatorade. Crammed in a few more calories. Worried about the bathroom. Wondered about the race. 

Except for the hand cyclists who start in front of the field, athletes with disabilities start with everyone else. We were in corral 18, green wave 1. In practice that meant we were at the back of the crowd in the first wave. It’s not a terrible place to start, but it did mean extra bodies to navigate through to try to help Amelia reach her goal. Amelia had three guides at the start. Two of us would run in front and try to clear the road, and one would be at her side. For the first 8 miles or so, Othman Doubiany held the tether as Jamie and I tried to maintain the goal pace and clear the road. We did fine with the pacing, but we were far too polite early on as we tried to make space for Amelia. She fell briefly at mile 7 when we failed to alert her to a timing mat in the road and had a few tangles with other runners who drifted into her space. And each time it felt like a failure and that we had let her down. But Amelia was unflappable. She kept moving and stayed focused on running her race.

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